Date Traveled, August 2012
The Luang Prabang night market is quite a different experience from the chaotic bustle of other similar markets in Asia. This one is leisurely, peaceful...almost quite, but far from lacking. There is plenty of things uniquely Lao here that will pique the interest of the most skeptical visitors.
I was one of those skeptical visitors. I enjoy watching and walking around street markets but rarely do I find things that I end up purchasing. But Luang Prabang was different and between my partner and myself, we must have spent close to a $100 US there over the course of our stay. Not all for us, some of it was gifts to my family but the stuff I picked for them was of great quality and I was very happy to give them, but we bought enough for us as well and given the average price of items, believe me $100 got us a lot. The Luang Prabang night market is a colorful affair that takes place on one of the main streets in the city, Sisavangvong road. It roughly starts around the old Royal palace and extends for about half a mile or so. The entire market is under brightly colored tents and well lit under them so you have plenty of lighting to examine the goods. Go there just before dark as the tents are set up and across from the Royal Palace gates, you will find the entrance stairway to Mount Phousi. If you climb up to the first level of the stairs, you will be treated to a wonderful scene of the setting sky with the palace and the colorful tents like the picture at the top of this article.
Stalls by a Wat on Sisavangvong road
Stalls lining Sisavangvong road
I mentioned the market is quite earlier. This wasn't too much of an exaggeration. As you walk under the tents looking at what's on offer, you will only hear quite conversations and polite bargaining around you. Many of the vendors would be quietly seated if they are alone or engaged in small talk with others around them, did not notice any boisterous hawking at all. Interestingly I also noticed some young girls even had their laptops with them and were on facebook. Many visitors will be looking around at different items of interest or moving forward, and no one will interrupt them or you. It was such a pleasantly different experience to be able to engage in quiet "window shopping" without the chaos inherent in many other markets. Only when you actually signal to a vendor that you are interested in an item or would like to learn more would they first speak to you, greeting you with a polite 'Sabaidee', the Lao greeting of which you will hear aplenty anywhere in the country. Then the bargaining starts.
Some of the vendors speak good English, but regardless, they have a system that crosses all language and cultural barriers, a calculator. You point to an item like a scarf and ask the price and they will hand that number to you in a calculator in Lao Kips. Bargaining is the norm and is expected, you type down your counter, maybe half the original amount of kips specified which will be followed by varying responses, some will be expressions of despair, others will be anger or mockery but just smile and enjoy yourself and eventually a compromise can be reached, especially if you show you are a good with buying more from the same vendor. They are sharp sellers...I typically am not all about getting the absolute best bargain unlike my partner and was much more willing to give a good deal to the person selling us stuff. My attitude was that it wasn't terribly expensive for me and it was their livelihood and as long as we are getting a decent deal, I am fine with that. My partner on the other is more inclined to get what should be the right price and the closest possible best deal because they are not going to sell it as a loss after all. That also is true...but the sellers saw me as the soft spot easily and would target me emotionally, "You get good price and you help me, please", lol :-). Soft I may be, but I am also not inclined to not bargain at all but some people did that too, so whatever works and all is fair.
We bought many clothes
The food lane
Speaking a bit on what you can buy, note that while there are certainly things that are what you may consider mass market cheap goods available at any street market in Asia, there was also definitely something in the kind of items that were unique to Luang Prabang and Laos and had their own distinctness. There were Lao style shawls, scarves, clothes, crafts, paintings and much more. The quality was pretty decent depending on the item and on average well above the other night market I visited in Laos when I was in Vientiane later. The ubiquitously available Beer Lao tshirts were there in heaps but there were certain colors and styles I did not see elsewhere. We ended up buying a lot of clothing here. I got my required Beer Lao tshirts and also bought scarves and shawls for myself and family. My partner bought things too including I believe a half a dozen different Lao style pants which she absolutely loved, also for herself as well as friends and family.
Toward the end of the market at an intersection, there will be a street with the food market. There is plenty of food available and some plastic seating should you care to eat there. We never tried the food from the stalls there but it did seem like a popular option with both the locals and tourists. It certainly was the cheapest option for food in Luang Prabang. Even if you don't shop, the Luang Prabang night market is a great place to walk up and down in the evening. It is kind of the social thing to do either before or after dinner and you will run into people you see on tours or from your hotel here all the time. The night market was part of our daily schedule...it is a small town and no matter where we planned to be, there was always time for a walk up and down the stalls either before heading for dinner or to burn off the meal after.
My only complaint was the height of the tents, if you are around 6 feet-ish or taller, be prepared for a lot of crouching as you walk through.